Fresh Start at Prison

Posted Oct. 25, 2009, at 5 p.m.

In 2002, the state closed its 100-plus-year-old prison in Thomaston, a facility that, despite improvements over the decades, retained the air of a medieval dungeon, with its quarried rock walls and rambling floor plan. The new state prison in Warren, which houses a much larger population than the Thomaston facility did, was designed to allow more modern incarceration programs to be implemented, and to keep guards and prisoners safe. Now, with the arrival of a new warden, another big step has been taken toward turning the page to 21st century incarceration theory.

Warden Jeffrey Merrill, who left to oversee energy conservation efforts at the Department of Corrections, was well regarded by staff, legislators and even many prisoners. His departure from a very tough job — a job that must have a high level of stress and a low level of satisfaction — presents the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to push the prison toward more progressive, and more effective, policies.

Patricia Barnhart, acting warden of the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich., will succeed Warden Merrill in December. She is being hailed for her leadership skills and knowledge of best practices in prison management. Her background includes work in probation and parole. Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said, “Barnhart has a strong commitment to prisoner programming and re-entry.”

Without denigrating Warden Merrill’s tenure, as the new warden, Ms. Barnhart has the opportunity to see the system with fresh eyes and bring in fresh ideas for some old problems.

Prison staff has been reduced in response to state budget shortfalls and that has hurt morale. Though the prison must adhere to certain rules regarding staffing, creative approaches to scheduling may make life easier for corrections officers who, like the warden, have demanding and emotionally difficult jobs. And unlike the warden, their jobs are dangerous on a day-to-day basis.

Maine corrections officials were impressed with Ms. Barnhart’s record of working with staff to build a team to solve problems.

Making life easier for prisoners is not high on the list of concerns for most Mainers. But ensuring that prisoners return to life outside the walls with at least an even chance to succeed benefits us all. Education, skill development, and anger management and substance abuse counseling must be available to prisoners.

Though prison serves the dual purposes of punishing and removing dangerous people from society, it fails if it does not also provide a path for prisoners to follow toward a successful life in society. After the new warden takes time to assess the Maine State Prison’s needs, legislators should listen carefully to what she proposes to improve the facility’s effectiveness.

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